The U.S. will post a $41 billion agricultural export surplus this year, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday while projecting that farm commodity prices would remain relatively high for at least a couple of years, making the rural economy one of the country's strengths.

"I'm confident we're going to have good prices this year. I'm confident we'll have good prices next year," Vilsack said. "One of the reasons we have good prices is we are very aggressive in exports."

Vilsack, a former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa, spoke during a taping of Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program airing over the weekend.

"This will be a record year for ag exports," Vilsack said. "This is a great story that's untold. We have a $41 billion surplus projected in ag products."

He said many of the strengths in the rural economy are overshadowed by other more splashy industries. But he said people are now beginning to realize the role the farm economy plays.

"It's difficult to get people to pay attention on this issue," Vilsack said. "We have a very positive trade story to tell and we're getting people in Washington to understand this."

Vilsack also noted that the nutrition programs he administers have offered aid to 43 million Americans who have had to seek help because of the recession. Those programs by themselves offer economy stimulus, he argued.

"If you allow people to purchase more at the grocery story, within 30 days 97 percent of that money is actually in the economy," said Vilsack. "People purchase more and those are all jobs."

Vilsack said his agency is feeling budget pressure in at least one area because of relatively high commodity and land prices. Under the Conservation Reserve Program, the government pays famers not to farm fragile acres, and those prices have gone up, he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.